Saturday, December 19, 2015

Quotable: Caleb S. Cage on jihadist narratives

Friday, December 18th 2015
“The driving storyline of extremist Islam, often referred to simply as the Narrative, states that the West and its allies are continuing in a historical effort to destroy Islam. More particularly, the Narrative states that the U.S., Israel, and puppet Islamic leaders, are continuing the historic efforts of outsiders conspiring to eradicate, exploit, and humiliate Muslims,” wrote Caleb S. Cage in a December 10, 2015 article, “Jihadist Narratives: Democratized Islam and Islamic Nation Building,” in Small Wars Journal.  Cage, a West Point graduate who served in Iraq, now works in the State of Nevada’s Division of Emergency Management as Chief and Homeland Security Advisor.

Cage’s article goes beyond describing the main points of radical Islamic narratives to examine their roots in psychology.  He relates the main points of several recent studies --Narrative Landmines: Rumors, Islamist Extremism, and the Struggle for Strategic Influence by Daniel Bernardi and others, Master Narratives of Islamic Extremism by Jeffry Halverson and co-authors, “A Tale of Two Jihads: the Al-Qaeda and ISIS Narratives” by Naureen Chowdhury Fink and Benjamin Sugg, Official Stories: Politics and National Narratives in Egypt and Algeria by Laurie Brand, and Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity by Faisal Devji.   

“If ISIS continues to build its case against modern political structures in favor of a Caliphate, and the remnant of Al-Qaeda continues its efforts to strip modern Islam in favor of global jihad, then the West will be faced with a worst-of-both-worlds scenario, with ISIS providing a clear vision for the future of Islam and Al-Qaeda providing methods for individual involvement everywhere. Indeed, it appears that this melding is already well underway, and narratives are key to each effort,” Cage concluded.

The article is a valuable summary of scholarship that deserves a full reading.  This gist opens with a few key quotes from sources, and points from Cage’s analysis follow.

  • In his 1996 manifesto, A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad, Abu Musa’ab al-Suri states, “the modern Crusader-Jewish, American-led campaign against the Arab and Islamic world has clearly announced its goals: total elimination of the civilizational, religious, political, economic, social, and cultural existence of Muslims.”

  • In his 1996 fatwa, as translated in Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought, “Declaration of War Against the American Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” Osama bin Laden writes:  ‘It is no secret that the people of Islam have suffered from aggression, iniquity, and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusaders alliance and their collaborators, to the point where Muslim blood has become the cheapest and their wealth as loot in the hands of the enemies.’

  • . . . variations on the Narrative are some of the most powerful tools wielded against the West by extremist Islam, providing a common ideological reference point, powerful recruitment tools, and justification for their violence.

  • Through invoking it through mass communication, the Narrative has come to permeate parts of the broader Islamic worldview. It is common in the media communications of extremist Islam and even in their abundant rumors.

  • After the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2015, President Obama addressed it directly, saying, “that narrative becomes the foundation upon which terrorists build their ideology and by which they try to justify their violence,” as he outlined a plan to defeat the Narrative through a campaign that includes counterterrorism operations, social media, and encouraging Islamic clerics to weigh in.

  • Narrative Landmines studies how narratives manifest locally through rumor, and how rumor drives broader beliefs. For them, “rumor is a shorthand term for speculation, half-truths, and misinformation in the form of stories that, to some groups, appears to offer rational cause-and-effect explanations of events.”

  • In narratives, archetypes represent easily identifiable shorthand for versions of people, places, and events the Muslim world has interacted with throughout history. They range from Tyrants and Hypocrites, to Crusaders and Colonizers, Martyrs and Champions . . . . Common story forms include Invasion, Noble Sacrifice, Reward, and Deliverance, which are intended to persuade the audience that they are an aggressed underdog, and dying and even killing for their cause is just.

  • . . . the driving narratives found in Al-Qaeda’s Inspire revolve around three recurring themes. First, the magazine glorifies “militant activities and terrorism”; second, Inspireprovides a “DIY guide for weaponry”; and third, it encourages “‘lone wolf’ acts of terror by individuals that can have absolutely no formal association with Al-Qaeda.”

  • . . . ISIS’s narrative revolves around a centralized, organized plan for the establishment of a formal Islamic State. Dabiq calls for support of the Caliphate through appealing “to doctors, engineers, and professionals to make hijrah (migration) in order to assist the construction of an Islamic government,” . . .

  • . . . regimes . . . control public discourse . . . as they attempt to establish official narratives. They can be seen in a regime’s investment in cultural productions, such as plays and literature, through asserting control over educational texts, through speeches, policy programs, charter documents, or other official statements.

  • Brand places the use of official narratives by states or state actors within the literature of propaganda, which historically has been effectively used to shape public opinion in times of crisis.

  • [In the Islamic State] This reworked curriculum will establish a new national narrative for the Islamic State. This new narrative will “‘correct’ the history and mission promulgated by the former colonial power” and in its place, “an heroic story would be constructed, aimed at building a unified national identity, establishing the vision of that nation, and – crucially – consolidating power through reinforcing the regime’s legitimacy to rule.”

  • These early actions . . . can fairly easily be seen as efforts to legitimize a conservative, authoritarian, pre-modern state. However, they should also be seen as efforts to delegitimize and erode support for competing modern political structures and practices through actions that directly support their narrative.

  • [Devji says] “militant Sunnism has abandoned the theological disputes of the past, based as these were on differing claims to the truth, and adopted a democratic narrative of enmity instead.” By this he means “it is no longer arguments about truth that animate such militants, only a desire for the recognition and respect of their neighbors, who are accused of insulting their sanctities while at the same time claiming to be fellow Muslims.”

  • Deconstructed Islam coincided perfectly with the new media age, Devji argues, with the Internet allowing beginners to have the same voice as established authorities. The new media age also assists in making the jihad available globally and impossible to ignore.

  • It may be true that Al-Qaeda laid the groundwork for ISIS to exist and has since faded, but each organization’s ongoing appeal cannot be understated. Because both have successful rallied followers to their causes through narratives, any future combination of their worldviews among extremist Islam will result in disastrous outcomes.

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